Author Ian Andrews took time out to talk to me about his novel, The Pearls That Were His Eyes, the Cthulhu Mythos and the King in Yellow. If you like weird fiction, flooded gothic cities, and cosmic horror, you’re in for a treat.
Tell me about The Pearls That Were His Eyes.
Pearls is at its heart a story about unconventional love, and about the masks we wear. Almost every character in the novel undergoes a journey dictated and coloured by their loves; for some it’s a less pleasant journey than others. Passion isn’t always a positive emotion. I have always been fascinated by the act of wearing a mask and the potential significances that can have; the putting on of a game face to deal with a situation that our truer, naked selves may not want to face.
On the surface of it, it’s a political whodunit set in a mysterious, partly flooded city against a backdrop of upheaval and occult menace. I have heard readers say that they struggle to pin down the genre; there’s elements of clockpunk fantasy, historical thriller, murder mystery and a number of other themes all jostling to be heard.
But at its heart, it’s a love story. A story about the terrible, dreadful things that love can make you do.
It’s also, lest we forget, a story about the unconditional love of a man for his giant albino ape. Bisociation is both big and clever, and complexity is not a vice….
What were your major inspirations for the book?
The story wears its Shakespearean pretensions on its sleeve, though there’s a little mischief-making with the naming conventions too; our Miranda is clearly an Ariel, and Prospero bears more resemblance to the prince of Poe’s story than the Duke of Milan. Carcosa, obviously, is a key inspiration for Cittavecchio; the work of Bierce, Chambers, Wagner and latterly Detwiler and Tynes was foremost in my mind when I was putting together the backstory of the city and its inhabitants. There’s a lot of Venice in there too – predictably – much of the writing of the key sequences was done while in Venice for Carnevale, and I took a lot of late night walks along narrow, foggy canal side paths looking for the war of frogs and mice. But not perhaps as much as one might think to begin with – there’s a lot of old London in there too, especially in the Rookeries, and Amsterdam, and Thomas Ligotti’s City of Bells and Towers.
I have been reading a lot of Borges and Ligotti recently; it’s good brain food and good discipline for a writer.
I’ve always been fascinated with the commedia dell’arte; the almost cultish rituals and secrets that surround it and the idea of mask as character.
But as per the chapter headings, the real inspiration behind it is Eliot’s magnificent, enigmatic Waste Land – trying to recapture the sense of unfocussed background menace that Elio seems to just find lying around in the street. One must be so careful these days.
What is it about The King in Yellow and the Cthulhu Mythos that attracts you?
A deceptively complicated question. The Carcosa mythos appeals to me for many reasons – but if I had to pin down one for sure it’s the ambiguity. The recent upsurge of popularity in old Howard Phillips’ cosmology – especially the roleplaying games that have come out of his work – have led the Cthulhu Mythos, for better or for worse, down a road where there’s little mystery or awe left in it. Encyclopaediae and rulebooks capture, quantify and pin down like butterflies the creatures, mysteries and magic of the Cthulhu Mythos and I wonder if in doing so they have missed its fundamental point.
The Carcosa cycle, the so-called Hastur Mythos, is harder to pin down. It’s impressionistic, almost, in that it is far more open to the reader’s interpretation. It’s not about monsters and agendas and cults and pulp good versus evil – or not just about that anyway, once you scratch the surface. It’s far more about mood, emotions, sensation. When all is said and done, there’s a few fragments of a play, some character names and implicit assumed relationships, an occult threat, a sense of foreboding, a city that may or may not be lost and a handful of locations. The very paucity of detail means it’s easier to hang a story, a sense of menace and ambiguity, onto the skeletal framework. It’s not so tied to a single period as Lovecraft’s work; some of the best Carcosa fiction I have read has been modern.
There is a formality to the structure of the source material; like the commedia there are roles, defined by titles. The Last King. The Phantom of Truth. Cassilda and Camilla. They spark the imagination, encourage you to make your own connections. To wear the masks and try them out for a while.
Back in the Nineties, John Tynes wrote a number of essays (found in the excellent Delta Green: Countdown and elsewhere) about his take on the Hastur Mythos; about it being to do with the concept of entropy as expressed through civilisational and social models rather than Lovecraft’s blind idiot chaos. I find the idea of the King in Yellow as an anthropomorphisation or avatar of a universal principle of entropy expressed in human terms and working on human constructs profoundly more unsettling than any number of tentacle faced kaiju, for all I love them. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
Tell me brother; have you seen the Yellow Sign? If you have not, I lack the words to explain. If you have, I do not need to.
Do you have any recommendations of other modern Carcosa Mythos or Cthulhu Mythos fiction?
It’s impossible not to start with the first season of True Detective. A triumph of storytelling and I admire the restraint of the director and the writer in not feeling it necessary to explain everything. That’s the essence of the Carcosa Mythos right there. There’s a short scene in episode five where the two leads are interviewing an old woman in a nursing home, and Rust Cohle shows her some of his sketches. Her reaction and her little speech is so chilling, so on the nail, that just recalling it now has made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You know Carcosa? You know Carcosa? Him who eats time. Him robes. It’s a wind of invisible voices. Brrr… Civilisational entropy; the rot setting into the soul. It’s all right there.
I’ve referenced John Tynes’ work above; there’s both his work for Delta Green and his writing in the Unspeakable Oath fanzine if you can get hold of it. He also released three chapbooks – Ambrose, Broadalbin and Sosostris – which shaped a lot of my early thinking about the Carcosa Mythos. His sometime writing partner Dennis Detwiler has done a lot of rpg-based work on Carcosa themes too – I’d recommend hunting down Don’t Rest Your Head and Insylum.
Even though it’s not overtly associated with the Carcosa Mythos I have to give a nod to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book, and a lot of the themes of alienation, loss of perspective grasp and what happens when the horror comes to you fit very well into the overall themes of the mythos. And also, once it has momentum, it’s un-putdownable.
There are some excellent recent collections of short stories on a Carcosa theme – Rehearsals for Oblivion Vol 1 springs immediately to mind – that gather both new takes on old themes and some of the classics like Karl Edward Wagner’s River of Night’s Dreaming and James Blish’s seminal More Light.
Last of all, I’d like to flag a recommendation for an episode of the TV anthology series Masters of Horror. Various luminaries of the horror genre each do an episode – and while some of them are genuinely awful, the episode of the second season written by John Carpenter called Cigarette Burns is well worth a look – the effect of watching his lost film and a lot of the story surrounding it is an elegant updating of Chambers’ lost and banned play.